In recent months there have been a couple of national ministries that have been shaken (or completely destroyed) through allegations of moral and/or financial scandal. These situations are the not the first of their kind, nor are they the last. At the moment, I know of a couple of others who are a hair’s breadth away from hitting the national headlines.
I have, along with many others, been giving much thought and prayer to what we are to learn from these situations. I certainly do not have all of the answers, but I want to share a few observations that I hope will be instructive.
1. Ministries are Not God’s Eternal Plan.
The big picture, the meta-narrative, if you will, is not about little “kingdoms.” It never has been, and it never will be. It is about THE KINGDOM of God. The Eternal Kingdom will never pass away (see Daniel 4:3). Ministries or movements or revivals or awakenings are not the big picture. God uses them, in a temporary way, to establish his eternal purposes, but they are temporary, and are never intended to last forever.
Even local churches are not THE KINGDOM. Local expressions of the Universal Church may come and go. God will always have His remnant, who will do His will on the earth, but it may not always be in a particular geographical place at any given point in history. For that matter, even nations are not promised longevity. The churches in the Jesus Letters in Revelation 2 and 3 are all gone today. But the Kingdom rolls on.
2. Feeding “The Machine”
The reason I emphasize the first point is that this is often forgotten by ministry leaders. I don’t know why, but once an organization is formed, and a mission stated, nearly everyone involved (particularly the leader(s)) becomes obsessed with feeding the machine. There is financial overhead, deadlines, staff to pay, and the ever-present, relentless need (the reason the ministry was founded in the first place) that is always screaming.
Granted, there are some organizations that are frauds from the beginning. They were founded with the intent of “fleecing the flock” by unsavory characters who are greedy for selfish gain. That is not what I’m referring to here. I’m speaking of legitimate needs that were, at least initially, met by God-fearing people who sought to do good in Jesus’ name.
The financial demands on these organizations is sometimes fierce. I received a letter this week from a well-known Bible teacher, encouraging me to donate, reminding me that his organization requires over $500,000 per month in order to meet budget. When this man started his ministry, less than 50 years ago, with a Bible and a dream to help people understand it better, did he ever imagine the kind of pressure he would eventually be under to keep up the momentum he eventually achieved.
Very rarely does a ministry ever downscale. The people who found these organizations are usually visionaries, and the trajectory is almost always onward and upward to bigger and better and greater things. This is surely well-intentioned, but often deadly.
3. A Ministry is Comprised of Real People
An organization somehow takes on a life of its own. Even though it is truly only ever about the individuals who comprise that association at a given moment, it quickly becomes an impersonal entity that we innately trust, or think we know. When we hear about McDonalds, or WalMart or Apple, we think of a corporate entity and what it represents. The same is true of a Christian ministry. What we fail to remember, however, is that these organizations are not nameless, faceless robots who perform their obligations mechanically while we all sleep soundly at night. No, real individuals, like you and me, are involved in these tasks.
That means that real shortcomings, near-nearsightedness, temptations and even sin, are possible and probably present, in these organizations at any given moment. Because this is good work, being done in the name of the Lord, we often assume that these people are immune to failure or poor judgment. Not so.
On the other hand, some ministries are very personality-driven, by larger-than-life individuals, who are often better known than the organizations they represent. Even so, these people, despite their massive persona, are still just real people, like you and I.
4. Leadership is a Double-Edged Sword
People who lead organizations usually do so because they have a unique personality type (and in some cases calling) that sets them above the rest of society. They are persuasive, intelligent, have vision, charm, charisma, and a way to influence others and rally them to a cause. These same traits that propel them to leadership can also be the seeds of their own undoing.
Once someone becomes known as a leader, expert, authority, “answer man,” or some other title of adulation, a kind of addictive narcissism often takes over. That leader often has no peers, no equals, and in many cases respects no one besides himself (or herself). So often every interaction this leader has with others is in a capacity of authority, where he is above those he leads, or serves. This can give a person a feeling of power, and in some cases infallibility or invincibility. Rather than recognizing his place as one who serves, he begins to see himself as worthy of being served by others. He often becomes arrogant and demanding of others. Everything is suddenly all about him, not about Jesus.
5. Organizational Ministry is a Means to an End, not an End in and of Itself.
True ministry must always be an overflow of the reality of the life of Christ in our own personal lives, and our families. True ministry always begins in the home, with those who know us the best. If it isn’t happening there, we need to reorient our priorities and take care of that first. It is easy to get so busy in the serving, in the doing, that we lose sight of that to which we are truly called: Being. Spending time alone with Christ, on a daily basis, is the only way to ensure that we will not be shipwrecked by the trials and temptations of the work (see John 15).
If a work ever runs its course, finishes its purpose, etc., then we need to be willing to allow it to dissolve. If we ever become so possessive of a ministry or a church or some other good thing, that we can’t allow it to die at the appointed time, it is clear that it has become an idol in our lives. God is interested in relationship with us, as individuals. He didn’t die for organizations. He doesn’t justify or sanctify organizations. He lives in and directs the lives of real people, doing real work; hopefully His way.
6. Scandal Teaches Important Lessons
I don’t think the downfall of a ministry, or a leader is always a bad thing. Okay, on one level, it’s always a bad thing. Whenever there is moral failure or corruption, that is bad. We never want that to happen. But when there is corruption, or false teaching, it needs to be exposed. It needs to come out in the light. Hiding it will only cause more people to be hurt in the end. We need to be willing to “walk in the light” as the Apostle John commanded us. Scandal teaches us that Christ is jealous for His name, and though He is patient, eventually, He will bring down any effort in His name that becomes apostate.
We must also remember that we have an enemy who is always at work. He will seek any opportunity, any door left unattended. The whole chapter of 1 Peter 5 is about this. We need to continue to check our motives, and resist the devil. We need to pray for those in leadership, as they face a stricter judgment (James 3:1), and are easier targets in many ways for the enemy.
Let the Hero Worship End!
One of the most important lessons we learn is that no one is to be worshiped, but Christ alone. I am thankful for faithful Christian men and women who do the work of the ministry in a Godly way. I think those people need to be encouraged and commended (the Apostles did this, mentioning faithful brethren and sisters by name). However, there is a tendency we all have to exalt people to a place of esteem that is unhealthy. A person is just a person, regardless of the level of success they have achieved in this life. Jesus deserves unreserved allegiance and adoration; no one else does. Jesus will bring to the ground any organization and/or individual who exalts itself/himself as a rival to His throne. We should be thankful for faithful workers, but we must never exalt them beyond their station. We are all equal at the foot of the cross. We are all sinners saved by a gracious Savior. He alone deserves our worship.
Israel Wayne is an Author and Conference Speaker and is the Director of Family Renewal.